Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Door - Georges Simenon

First published in France 1962; cover shown is the 1968 Penguin Books (UK) paperback edition. Translated from the French by Daphne Woodward; cover design by Wendy Coates-Smith. 136 pages.

This is not a crime novel - the author and that vintage green Penguin cover fooled me! Simenon wrote several hundred novels, mostly detective and crime fiction. La Porte (The Door) is a glimpse into a marriage slowly crumbling under the burden of jealousy.

Bernard and Nelly Foy have been married for two decades, and have lived together in a small flat in an outer suburb of Paris for that entire time. Shortly after their marriage Bernard had both his hands blown off by a mine, and since then he has lived with hook attachments.

For years Bernard has lived contentedly, painting lampshades to supplement his war pension, shopping in the markets for special meats and breads, and ensuring that lunch and dinner is ready on the table when Nelly returns from work. But now, at the age of 42, he finds himself increasingly consumed with the jealousy that has always dogged his life, but which only now has begun to take over his life.

When Nelly starts visiting a wheelchair bound polio sufferer in the bottom flat of their building - to pass on gifts and messages from the man's sister, her workmate - Bernard's jealous thoughts and suspicions overwhelm him. Nelly is 38 years old, but to Bernard she seems more beautiful and desirable than ever, and his fears turn into dizzying panic attacks, making it hard for him to leave the apartment building.

When Bernard finally tells Nelly of his fears, she assures him that the man downstairs means nothing to her, that she has never been with another man since meeting him all those years ago. For a few days Bernard feels sure he - and their life - is returning to normal. But it takes just one word, one look, and Bernard's jealousy rears its ugly head once more.

I was unsure how this novel would end. For some reason I thought the final chapter would be told from Nelly's point of view, and finally her true feelings for Bernard - and the man downstairs - would be revealed, as until then Simenon always focused on Bernard. But Simenon didn't take this option. Instead, the eight pages of the final chapter hold three shocks in quick succession, two of which I didn't see coming.

Georges Simenon (1903 - 1989) had a unique method for writing a novel. After receiving the all-clear from his doctor, he would lock himself in a sparsely furnished room and type furiously for three or four days. At the end of that time he would emerge a tired wreck, but with yet another 150 page novel ready for his publisher.

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